Bill Willingham (and Vertigo's) tentative advance into the world of novels has paid off - Peter & Max is a genuinely great, if slightly skittish, book. If anything, Willingham (and, again, Vertigo) should be encouraged to try his hand at pure novels, and leave his comic book world behind.
Peter & Max succeeds as a lovely, modern fairy tale - a well-constructed & delivered plot, filled with intriguing characters. Where it lets the reader down is when it tries to name-check the rest of the Fables mythos. In this attempt to please existing readers, it comes dangerously close to alienating new ones.
This is a shame, as Peter & Max is oddly reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's better efforts: Stardust or Neverwhere.
The Fables world of Peter & Max is a curious, strangely-philosophical place. The characters consider the overlaps between what is 'real' and what is 'fable' - the connections and shadows between them. The language used is also very Gaiman-esque - simple, but evocative - and ultimately very readable. This makes for an enjoyable, quick-moving book.
The bulk of the plot takes place in the past. After a quick set-up of the dangerous Max and the placid Peter, the reader skips backwards in time (and place) to the origin of the young brothers, and their misadventures. Max is, by far, the more interesting of the two. Peter is peaceful, peace-loving, and ultimately a slave to fate. Max, for all his cannibalistic/monstrous flaws, at least tries to take control of his own destiny. As horrific as he is, he at least deserves credit for taking an active role in his own life. Peter, for the good guy, is always so passive that it is hard to rally to his cause. If Max weren't so horrendously evil, Peter would be neutral to the point of khaki.
The few vignettes in the modern world are interesting (where they contemplate the overlap between real & fable) and a little bit too commercially gratifying (where Peter talks to every comic-book-famous Fable). Peter musing over the differences between fable Hamelin and 'real' Hamelin is fascinating. Peter having conversations with characters that walk in and out of the book as cameos? Less interesting.
Oddly, one of the best stories in the comic book series featured a side character - Cinderella. In that short adventure, she had virtually no connection with the main leads. Unfortunately, the first Fables novel lacked the courage to do the same.
So, one last time: good book - one that could have easily stood alone - or at least apart. Willingham has shown that his highly-praised writing ability is flexible enough to accomplish 'proper' books as well. I suspect we'll see much more from him in this area. At least, I hope so...